The chance to wander an ancient Roman city, complete with well-preserved temples, homes, mosaics, and baths? It’s no wonder why so many visitors to Southern Italy take the trek to Pompeii to see the incredible ruins of a city devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. While doing research, you might also come across a suggestion of visiting neighboring Herculaneum, another city destroyed by the volcanic eruption. A visit to both cities is highly suggested, but if you only have time for one day trip, which should you choose? The following includes some information about Pompeii and Herculaneum to help you make such a (sigh) tough choice. #TravelProblems #NoOneFeelsSorryForYou

Herculaneum-or-Pompeii-Sedimentality8

Before you go: fascinating facts about Pompeii and Herculaneum

It’s always fun to know a bit about your destination before arriving, especially when it has such a fascinating story! Here are some facts to help you better appreciate your visit:

  • The eruption of Vesuvius was thought to have occurred on August 24, 79 A.D. This was one day after the Roman festival Vulcanalia, which celebrated the Roman god of fire (including volcanoes). Coincidence? Perhaps . . .

    (Important, not-so-fun note: Later evidence found in the excavations–including the warmer weather clothes worn by the victims and the uncovered vegetables, typically ripe in October–suggest that the eruption may have been in November. But we are sticking to the August date, because it’s much more fun.)

  • The victims were long thought to have died because of ash suffocation, but recent evidence suggests they passed from the eruption’s heat which, even miles away, has been scientifically proven to be deadly.  

  • Tephra, the material produced by a volcanic eruption, rained down on Pompeii for about six hours and left 12 layers over 25 meters (75 feet) deep.

  • Pliny the Younger observed the eruption from Misenum in the Bay of Naples and recorded the experience, albeit 25 years later. His uncle, Pliny the Elder (an admiral of a navy fleet), died in the eruption. Read Pliny the Younger’s verbatim account of his uncle’s death here.

  • Both Pompeii and Herculaneum were forgotten until 1599, when they were unearthed while an underground channel was being dug. An architect, Domenico Fontana, was called to investigate: Fontana uncovered several frescoes and then buried them again. Some believe that the nature of the paintings (probably sexual, as many other artifacts that were later uncovered were) could have, for lack of a better word, turned Fontana off to the discovery.

  • Herculaneum was “officially” discovered in 1738 when workers digging the foundations of a summer home for the King of Naples unearthed ruins. The excavations helped promote the wealth and political and cultural strength of Naples.

  • Pompeii was rediscovered ten years later, in 1748, by Rocque Joauin de Alcubierre, a Spanish military engineer.

  • Perhaps the person who receives the most credit (at least as I remember in my history books) was Guiseppe Fiorelli, who took over the sites in 1864. Fiorelli realized that the empty spaces they had often unearthed were in fact once the spaces inhabited by bodies, which had since decomposed. He devised the method of injecting plaster into the spaces, thus creating a mold in the form of a body. (See photos below.)

  • As mentioned above, many sexual items and frescoes have been recovered. They are on display at the Naples National Archaeological Museum, which is worth a visit.

Bay of Naples map
A map of the area of affected by Vesuvius. Note that Pompeii was once on the coast, but thousands of years later, is slightly inland. Map by Mapmaster. 

Pompeii vs. Herculaneum

Pompeii

With over 2.5 million visitors a year and its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pompeii is most certainly the more popular of the two locations. It is also the most expansive: before the eruption, this seaside town was home to approximately 11,000 people. When visiting, make sure to bring comfortable walking shoes and take care when walking on the streets, which are made of stones and have large spaces between each brick. There is little shade in Pompeii, so use caution on a hot day.

Herculaneum-or-Pompeii-Sedimentality6
Ominous Vesuvius in the background of Pompeii. In the foreground: the Forum.
Herculaneum-or-Pompeii-Sedimentality9
Exploring the baths, private homes, and temples can take all day, and is a day well spent.


Pompeii offers a look at Roman houses, temples, baths, gardens, and public areas, like the amphitheatre. You can’t see it all in one day, so I suggest doing some research beforehand and creating a list of “must-sees.” This website provides a breakdown of the city into ten regions and explains what you can see in each area, including everything from tanneries to latrines. But also make sure to leave some time to wander, which is always the best part of traveling! Pompeii is so large that you can easily get lost, in the best way possible.

Herculaneum-or-Pompeii-Sedimentality10

Here are some of Pompeei’s many highlights:

  • The brothel. Ancient porn! Suggestive frescoes, small rooms with stone beds . . . enough said.

  • The Forum baths. Take a trip inside and see the well-preserved baths, including the Roman’s method of heating the baths.

  • The Villa of the Mysteries. The beautiful color of the walls alone is worth the walk, and since you’re taking a bit of a hike to get there, you probably won’t run into too many visitors.

  • The amphitheatre. This expansive ruin really lets your imagination run wild.

For more information, click out Pompeii online.

Herculaneum-or-Pompeii-Sedimentality7
Fiorelli’s plaster molds have allowed us to see–in great, albeit haunting, detail–the bodies of some of the victims.

Herculaneum

Herculaneum was the richer of the two cities, which is obvious after a tour of the ruins: there are more expansive houses, more impressive mosaics, and more lavish marble in the remains. Although a much smaller city, its ruins are also more dense, better preserved, and offer more complete homes and mosaics.

Herculaneum-or-Pompeii-Sedimentality

Herculaneum was also destroyed in a different way than Pompeii, which has affected how well its ruins are preserved. Due to the winds that day, Pompeii was severely affected by the first day of Vesuvius’ eruption, and many of the roofs collapsed under the weight of the falling ash. Herculaneum, however, lay west of Vesuvius, thus escaping this first crushing layer of ash (and, for many, escaping death: although 300 skeletons were recently discovered on the sea shore, it is widely believed that many residents fled after the first eruption, perhaps explaining why fewer plaster bodies have been recovered). The slower-falling ash covered and preserved wood and other organic objects (beds, roofs, doors, and even food!) better than in Pompeii, resulting in much more impressive ruins.

Herculaneum, Neptune and Salacia, wall mosaic in House Number 22
Herculaneum, Neptune and Salacia, wall mosaic in House Number 22.

Highlights:

  • House # 22: the mosaics are incredible in this well-preserved home.

  • The marble floors of many buildings and homes.

  • The beautiful arches of the city’s entrance.

Choosing between Pompeii and Herculaneum

When trying to decide between the two ancient cities, consider several factors: what you will see, the length of the trip, and the size of each city. A trip to smaller Herculaneum might be a better choice on a hot day–or for someone who is not able to walk very far–while Pompeii might be better for someone looking for an all-day excursion and a chance to explore an expansive, ancient city. If you are more interested in seeing well-preserved ruins, seriously consider Herculaneum: the homes and their marbles and mosaics are stunning and, since Herculaneum is smaller, you have much more time to explore and enjoy each “exhibit” in this “open museum.”

Herculaneum-or-Pompeii-Sedimentality2

To recap:

Pompeii

  • Pros: Larger, more recognizable, more plaster bodies to better understand Fiorelli’s method of preservation, more to explore, more impressive houses, the Forum, and amphitheatre.
  • Cons: Heavily trafficked, very hot most of the year, difficult to walk around if you have problems walking for hours.

Herculaneum

  • Pros: Smaller, more intimate, better frescoes, less crowds, more shady areas during the heat, roads are easier to walk on, better preserved homes and mosaics.
  • Cons: Less recognizable, less plaster bodies, smaller city, much of the site has yet to be excavated.
Herculaneum-or-Pompeii-Sedimentality4
An old “pub.”

So . . . where to? At the end of the day, both offer an incredible opportunity to see gorgeous ruins while exploring ancient cities: the experience cannot be understated! When deciding between the two, take into account the atmosphere of each site, weather conditions, and personal interests before choosing. And regardless of the site you choose, I highly suggest a visit to Naples’ National Archaeological Museum, which holds many of the relics, mosaics, artwork, jewelry, and BEAUTIFUL sculptures uncovered from both sites. Oh, and there’s a really awesome/hilarious/intriguing sex section, with everything from sex toys to small sculptures with enlarged . . . parts. It’s kind of worth it for that room alone.